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After school with A-Town

Every February since 2011, the A-Town Get Down festival has doused Savannah in a twelve-hour marathon of art, music and community love.

All day long, kids create colorful projects and chase each other around Trustees Garden, local artists slap paint on canvas for live demonstrations, and bands bring the boogie on into the night.

Funkadelic steel guitarist Robert Randolph will headline this year on February 27, but this is more than just an epic party: A-Town Get Down aims to celebrate the breadth and diversity of art in Savannah and make it accessible to all. This year admission will be free from noon until 5pm, and tickets to the evening shows will be $25, $15 for military.

Tom and Jeanne Townsend conceived the annual event to honor the memory of their son, Alex, a 21-year old SCAD student killed in a car crash in 2010. A talented young man with a penchant for travel, Alex—known to his friends as “A-Town”—had a deep appreciation for his adopted city.

“Alex really loved Savannah. He used to say, ‘I’ve finally found my people,’” says Tom from their home in St. Louis, MO.

“That’s the idea of A-Town Get Down: To help others find their people.”

The Townsends remain committed to what they’ve come to know as their son’s other hometown, visiting often and staying in touch with local leaders, artists and friends.

Now they’ve established a way to expand the reach of Alex’s legacy to Savannah all year long: Last fall, the Alex Townsend Memorial Foundation awarded a $7000 grant towards afterschool arts programming in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods.

“We felt like the trajectory was leading us in the direction of getting more involved in the community,” explains Tom.

“I read the newspapers, I see the crime stats, the violence. In the end, it becomes more obvious that politics can’t solve things at the street level. Our vision has always been about exposing kids to art and music at an early enough age so they see creative expression as a viable way of dealing with the issues they live with every day.”

To implement that vision, the foundation has tapped Loop It Up Savannah, the grassroots organization that has been engaging kids around the city with art for several years. The grant allows Loop It Up founder and director Molly Lieberman to bring consistent creative opportunities beyond A-Town Get Down’s one-day event and deepen the impact that art brings to Savannah’s youngest citizens.

The program launched in the last part of 2015, providing supervision, guidance and practically limitless piles of markers and crayons. at six Title 1 schools and urban community centers. Dozens of children have eagerly contributed to the Why I Love Where I Live project.

“It’s amazing what the kids have come up with, so many instances of people helping each other,” says Lieberman of her charges’ artistic creations.

“This has been a great way to draw attention to the things that are going well in this city and celebrate them. The more we see of the good stuff, the more those positive things become believable alternatives.”

Afterschool programs are widely recognized as positive ways to deter youth crime and violence, and the A-Town collaboration falls in line with the city’s efforts to provide more of them. Before she left office last year, former mayor Edna Jackson signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Savannah Chatham County Public School System superintendent Thomas Lockamy, vowing to expand the existing 21st Century afterschool programs to all SCCPSS schools through a grant through the Dept. of Education. Since Loop It Up already partners with 21st Century, and the A-Town funding has helped speed up services.

So far, A-Town afterschool arts residencies have been set up at Brock Elementary, Performance Initiatives, the Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club and the West Broad YMCA, with more to follow. To connect those artistic efforts back to their origins, the Why I Love Where I Live illustrations will be collated into a colorful mural that will serve as the stage backdrop for this year’s festival.

“We so appreciate this partnership and the opportunity to put our kids’ work on display on a first class platform,” says Lieberman.

Tom would like to see A-Town’s afterschool programs grow to include music and provide performance opportunities, including the festival.

“I think kids should experience applause as early as possible. When you hear people clapping for you for something creative you’ve done, something changes. It flips a switch. You can believe that you have something to contribute.”

The Townsends plan to increase funding for afterschool programming every year and hope to engage the greater Savannah community in A-Town’s legacy of connecting people with art of all forms.

“There is a lot of opportunity for other organizations, small businesses and individuals to be involved,” says Tom.

“This is a very easy way to address issues in the community without getting involved in politics or bureaucracy. A little sponsorship can go a long way. Art supplies don’t cost a fortune.

“One person in one classroom a few afternoons a week can accomplish a lot.”